Nicholas Stoll: COVID-19 isn’t a real reason for program cuts. It’s an excuse.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020 - 9:32pm

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Michigan State cut swimming and diving on Thursday, making it the latest University to cut a program this fall.

For the Spartans, and most athletic departments that have made similar decisions, football was either postponed or cancelled, and nearly all programs have zero or reduced capacity in their stadiums and arenas. The result for many schools is plummeting revenues that simply can’t fulfill the expenses incurred by the athletic department. Because of this, many universities have been forced to make the tough decision to cut down on spending by eliminating certain sports

In some cases, that’s justified. At least if you’re a small school like Urbana University, whose entire athletic department folded, or Seattle Pacific, an urban school with an undergraduate enrollment that doesn’t even break 3,000 students and an athletic department budget that doesn’t scratch $5 million.

But for larger universities with sizable athletic departments, the justification for program cuts isn’t really there. The losses are temporary, and the revenues from the bounce back when the pandemic ends can restore athletics back to their pre-COVID-19 state.

“I believe the long term picture is we will get control of the virus,” University of Michigan professor of Economics and author of Soccernomics Stefan Szymanski said in August. “All the evidence is when you return to sports after those major interruptions, it bounces back, and it bounces back better than it was before, so in some ways you get a boost.”

Michigan men’s gymnastics coach Kurt Golder echoed the stance:

“I’m not saying it’s an easy problem to solve, the financial problems of the pandemic brought and so forth,” Golder said in September. “But I think if we just get through this, it’s not gonna be forever. If we can just get through this, a year from now it’ll be a lot different.”

So why, then, are so many large athletic programs like Stanford, Minnesota, Iowa and most recently Michigan State cutting their smaller sports? It’s simple — it’s easy to use the losses from COVID-19 as a scapegoat for decisions that were made years ago.

“If there were sports which the university had in mind to cut even before the coronavirus then this would be a great excuse to cut them permanently,” Szymanski said. “ … People might use this as an excuse to do things that they wanted to do anyway.”

Bottom line: the sports that were cut do not make the universities money. And athletic departments are businesses within even larger businesses in universities. So a sport that doesn’t make money, at face value, is a liability — pure and simple. But that’s not the only reason for college athletics. They need to be treated as not just a sold product, but a way of marketing for the business of the university.

“The universities in general like to describe the athletic department as the front door to the university,” Szymanski said. “They see it as being the way in which we present ourselves to the world.”

If college sports were just based on generating more revenue than expenses, Michigan’s only remaining sports would be football, men’s basketball and enough women’s sports to be Title IX compliant. But universities don’t just cut programs every day — because they hold value beyond that. 

And by cutting small programs, what do they even save monetarily? Small programs generally  incur small expenses. Michigan State saved around $2 million by cutting swimming and diving. Two months before the pandemic, it spent $5.5 million on a new football coach.

$2 million is not a lot in terms of Power 5 athletics — especially when your university’s budget for athletics is near $140 million and your estimated losses were around $80 million before football was announced to return. $2 million doesn’t even make a dent in that.

And with football back, that’s even less of a problem. Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman suggested that with the shortened football season, the losses would be minimized and the Spartan athletic department would come close to breaking even

Beekman claimed the cut was because the program could not be sustained in the future because of poor facilities.

So I circle back to the question: Why now?

Signs point to athletic departments already wanting to do this for a while. The gun was already loaded; the pandemic just gave them an excuse to pull the trigger. COVID-19 is shutting things down everywhere, so if an athletic program that’s “losing money” is cut, less people are likely to care.

So what does this mean for Michigan?

At least right now, not much.

“Our athletic director, Warde (Manuel), (says) we’re not gonna drop any sports,”  Golder said. “We’ll get through this together. We’ll get through this.”

Michigan’s budget was projected for $100 million in lost revenue prior to the return of football being announced. Then, sports were not projected to be cut. Now, with football back, the chance lowers even further.

One of the most likely program candidates for cutting, men’s gymnastics, seems to be safe, at least for now — providing further evidence that Michigan will be hanging on to all of its sports.

But in the coming year, if Michigan —  or any Power 5 university for that matter — cuts a program citing revenue losses from the pandemic as the reason, it’s simply a masquerade to hide something they’ve been planning to do for a long, long time.

Stoll can be reached at nkstoll@umich.edu or on Twitter @nkstoll.


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